The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 192012
 

There seem to be many recent efforts to define and name the next (post-Millennial) Generation.  I’ll deal with the naming question in another post.  Let’s just look at the question of defining when these post-Millennials are born.  Many marketers and psychologists are claiming that this new generation is already in its mid-teens, which means that its oldest members were born in the mid-1990s, which means that the Millennial Generation, if its first members were born in the early 1980s, is only around 13 or 14 years long.

But isn’t a generation supposed to be roughly twenty years long?  Perhaps, but none of these experts really say much about the expected length of a generation—or even care much about it.

Magid Associates, which recently released a report calling these post-Millennial “Plurals,” defines them as all Americans born in 1997 and after (terminal birth date unknown), Millennials as born from 1977 to 1996 (a 20-year generation), and Generation X as born 1965 to 1976 (an 11-year generation).  So Millennials include the 1977 birth year?  So Kanye West is a Millennial?  Very interesting.  Magid, apparently in order to avoid shortening the Millennial Generation, instead shortens Generation X to only 11 years.  This is a solution?  Do they simply think that no one cares about Gen-Xers anymore?  And even beyond the question of generational length, one wonders: What is the justification for these dividing lines?  What is it about the age location in history of these birth cohorts (1976-77 or 1999-97) that makes them generational boundary lines?  We are offered no explanation.  Magid’s report includes not one word justifying its choice of birth-year dates.

A new USA Today piece on the post-Millennials, which attempts to identify some of their key traits, again quotes experts saying their oldest members are now in high school.  Yet unlike the Magrid report, these experts don’t mind lopping off the last half of Millennials without adjusting the first Millennial birth date.  In other words, they don’t mind shortening the Millennial Generation.  And for this, they do have a justification: namely, that history is moving faster, technology is accelerating, and (hey) just so much more is happening now than ever before.  And if more is happening, then generational boundaries (which I guess they regard as arbitrary mile posts of historical change) naturally fly by us ever faster—like roadside telephone poles as you punch the gas pedal of your new 900-hp Mustang.

The gist of this argument is implied by the following passage in the USA Today story (I am quoted here, but not to any effect):

 

Whether middle- and high-schoolers are really a separate generation, as Rosen suggests, or “late-wave Millennials” isn’t clear; Howe believes the latter.

“I think you’re going to find a lot of disagreement about this,” Rosen says. “I don’t think you can define a generation when you’re in the middle of it. The best you can do is try to characterize the similarities and differences and the overlap.”

He suggests, however, that new generations arise based on their use of new technologies; he says identifiable new generational groups are emerging more frequently than in the past.

The Baby Boom generation, for example, most often thought of as those born from 1946 through 1964, lasted almost 20 years. But Generation X, born from about 1965 through 1980, was five years shorter. And the Millennials (also known as Gen Y) appear to be about 10 years, he suggests.

 

Well, I certainly agree with Larry Rosen (a psychologist and prolific writer about kids and technology) about one thing: You are going to find a lot of disagreement.

Let me start with the common assumption that history and technology are changing so much faster today than in the past.  I totally disagree—or at least I would insist on asking, which aspect of history and technology are you talking about?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the life experiences of the peers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, born 1890.  When he was a child, kings and queens still ruled Europe, you needed to know Morse Code to communicate faster than a horse could run, and (in fact) horses were the only mode of ordinary street transport, even in the largest cities (the removal of manure being a huge municipal challenge); children routinely died from bacterial infections; and Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of that age, declared that “aeronautical travel” was impossible.  Now let’s fast-forward to Eisenhower at age 69, in 1959, during his second presidential term.  He was inside in a Boeing 707 (the first “Air Force One”) dictating memos on the deployment of hydrogen bombs, sugar-cube vaccines for polio, and plans to put a “man on the moon” (a plan later spelled out by Jack Kennedy and executed on time by LBJ), while flying at 35,000 feet over a nation whose vast, affluent, home-owning, car-driving, union card-holding middle class would have been utterly inconceivable in the presidency of William McKinley (or during the twilight years of Queen Victoria).  Oh, and did I forget to mention that he lived through two world wars and the establishment of two totalitarian states (USSR and PRC), all responsible for the slaughter, deportation, and migration of countless tens of millions—and the rise of a family of liberal and democratic “developed economies” responsible for the affluence of hundreds of millions.

Yeah, he lived through just a bit of history.

Meanwhile, I get up every morning and drive basically the same silly internal-combustion car that people drove fifty years ago–through the same suburbs on the same interstates to the same buildings powered by the same nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams that Eisenhower’s peers saw fit to build.  As for space travel, whoa!—that seems further in the future today than when Eisenhower was Pres.  And I complain about how history is accelerating?  Oh, sure, my peers got to see the Berlin Wall get torn down.  But his generation got to witness the seismic global events that built them up.  I’m not denying that the changes in digital IT over the last three decades have been breathtaking.  They have been.  I’m astounded every time I punch an app on my smart phone.  But I have often observed that people tend to fixate on whatever aspect of their social environment is changing the fastest, and ignore those aspects which are in fact surprisingly stationary.

In the Fourth Turning, we point out that the western world (especially since the Reformation) has adopted a uniquely linear view of history in which practically every generation believes it just happens to be experiencing the apocalyptic inflection point in world history, in which humanity is about to be completely transformed either morally or technologically.  And to buttress such conviction, we try so very hard to persuade ourselves, contrary to fact, that our grandparents and our earlier ancestors have lived through a history in which very little happened.  Let us please rid ourselves of this modernist hubris.

That is point one.  Now for point two: another disagreement.  The “speed” of history—regardless of whether you think it is accelerating or decelerating–is not what determines the length of generations.  Rather, what determines their length is the biologically and socially defined length of a phase of life—in particular the length of childhood, the number of years that elapse between birth and coming of age as an adult.  This is true because a very different social role is associated with each phase of life—so that when the social mood suddenly changes everyone will be shaped differently depending up their age.  The climax of World War II, for example, affected Americans who were still regarded as children (through age 19 on D-Day), very differently than those who were regarded as young adults.  The former (whose role was to keep quiet and stay safe) became the Silent Generation, the latter (whose role was to organize, rise up, and meet the enemy) became the G.I. Generation.  And those would have no memory at all of World War II would become the Boomer Generation.  These boundary lines are not arbitrary, and the transition from one generation to another is not continuous.

Although there’s more to the story of defining these three generations than just World War II, the concept of generations being forged by the intersection of history and phase of life is fundamental to the writing of so many of the great generations thinkers, from Emile Littre and John Stuart Mill to Orega y Gassett and Karl Mannheim.  See a bit more here.  I just wish that the marketers and social scientists who today opine about generational length (those few who even bother) demonstrated a bit more familiarity with the rich history of brilliant thinkers writing about generations over the past couple of centuries.

That is point two.  Now for point three: yes, still another disagreement—and this one is directed specifically at those who believe that “iGeneration kids” are digital natives, differently wired neuronally to be multitaskers , parallel thinkers, etc.  They miss the point.  Technology does not shape generations.  And those who believe it does tend to have a superficial understanding of what a generation is—as though a generation were shapeless and formless before a new device (like a smart phone or an ipad) miraculously imprints something on them.  It is far more accurate to say the reverse, that generations shape technology.  A generation, impelled in its youth by parents and by the prevailing social mood to acquire corrective attitudes and behaviors (toward family, risk, civic life, money, gender roles, rebellion, authority, whatever) will then come of age inventing new technologies to suit these new attitudes and behaviors.

Were Boomers “shaped” by the mainframe “Organization Man” computers they grew up with?  Hell no—only to the extent they invented (with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) “personal computers” that would liberate the individual from mainframes.  (Steve Jobs: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”)  And were Millennials “shaped” by the late-90’s end-of-history dream that the internet would cater to the ever-more privatistic desires of individual.  Again no—only to the extent this pushed them to popularize or invent the IMing and texting and smart phones and social network sites that would reconnect their peers back into one vast fish-bowl community.  (Mark Zuckerberg: “the social graph is our future.”)

No one thinks of his or her own generation as mindlessly or mechanistically “shaped” by the technology they inherited.  They think of their own generation as having a mind and spirit of its own.  So why do they think it will be any different for today’s kids?  These experts would employ their energy much more fruitfully if they were to look closely at the family, community, and economic environment surrounding these kids and to try to draw parallels from past generations of kids that experienced a similar shift in the prevailing social mood.  How did they turn out?  What can we learn here?

Here’s where I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the closest parallel for this new generation of kids is the Silent Generation.  Like today’s Homelanders (that’s our tentative reader-chosen name for post-Millennials), the Silent were a generation of children who were born just too late to recall a boom (the Roaring Twenties) and instead recalled nothing but hard times; who were very protectively raised by hands-on, pragmatic parents (then, Lost; today, Xers); and who learned early in life to fit in seamlessly (conform) to the peer mainstream.  I’ll defend this view in a future post.

That is point three.  And now for point four, which is my cynical take, having been an veteran observer of “generational” discoveries for well over twenty years.  Authors and marketers always want to be the first to proclaim the emergence of a “new” generation.  And to be the first, it always helps to cut short the current youth generation and say—wow!—I just noticed something brand new!  I can hardly recall how many times this happened with Millennials.  I recall the first mention of the term BABY BOOMLET or ECHO BOOM GENERATION applied to kids born in the early mid-1970s, and then GENERATION Y (invented by Ad Age in 1993, and originally applied to kids born from 1974 to 1980), and then terms like DIGITAL GENERATION, NET GEN, GENERATION 2000, GENERATION NEXT, GENERATION 2000, Y2KIDS, and GENERATION WHY.  Without exception, each of these new labels required, breathlessly, the hurrying in of a new cut-off point.

It’s been a wild ride.  And after it’s all over, we have mostly settled on dates for Gen-Xers and Millennials that define each of them as born over a period of roughly twenty years—just like most other American generations stretching back over centuries.  Yes, some generations manifest steep attitudinal or behavioral trends from first-wave to last-wave.  This was certainly true for Boomers.  And it seems to be true as well for Millennials.  But history cautions us against mistaking these first wave-last wave differences for entirely new generational dividing lines.  History sometimes acts on us.  History can speed us up or slow us down.  But we cannot do the same and act on history—we cannot speed history up or slow it down.

As ever, generations will arrive in their own sweet time.

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